Why is reaching out to people who are different from us often so hard? Or scary?
Being a 'Stranger Lover'
I recently went on a hike with a new friend, Emily. We had met at a local Welcome Picnic for new international students and immediately hit it off.
On our hike we covered a range of topics. I discovered she had quite a variety of influences from other cultures in her life growing up. Her father was a professor of interpersonal communications at a local university in Ohio. She recounted how they consistently spent time in her family working on those interpersonal communications – often without she and her three siblings even having any clue.
“As part of that ‘training,’ Dad would bring home people – kind of random people – to have dinner with us. To help us learn to relate to a wide range of people. And Mom – well, she was really into the international women’s club at the school, so she did all sorts of things with them. We’d often get dragged along.”
What she said next stuck with me.
“Well, I guess you could say if I have a spiritual gift or talent, it would be Stranger Lover.”
I had never heard it put quite that way before. And I could see where it had come from.
I think I have that gift, too.
This is more than simply small talk with a person standing in the same line as you.
Yes, that’s important, and some have the skills at that more than others. I can say, without a doubt, my own dad possesses that skill. So maybe that’s why I see inklings of it in myself.
But it goes further.
It means inviting people whom you otherwise might not know into your life in a way that may, at times, cost you.
Are These Your Excuses?
These days, there’s a lot of pushback out there on this practice.
From a standpoint of strict safety, fear looms in the minds of many.
“But I don’t know him or her!” “How can I trust him/her?” “What if…?”
But even more than safety concerns – which I would say, on the whole, is grounded in (often unfounded) fear – is a mindset rationalizing these fears, along with our own prejudices and sheer laziness.
“After all, isn’t caring for our own enough? That alone takes work! And I’m so busy anyways. There’s just not enough of me to do that!”
Why Should it Matter Anyway?
Honestly, America is a mess right now. (And our world as a whole isn’t doing so well, either.) So much distrust has bubbled up to the surface, so much suspicion, so much victimization and so much ugly blame.
You can sit on either side of the political divide and feel it. Polarization. Tribalization. (These are two different things. One has to do with people being on the opposite ends of a spectrum. The other has to do with people congregating into their specific affinity groups, whether based on race, religion, values, interests, anything.) Both are happening in the U.S. (and globally) right now with renewed vigor.
Although I do believe the issues for this mess stem from movements beginning decades earlier as well as deliberate Russian “active measures” and interference, we cannot deny how the intensity of vitriol and vicious partisanship has grown under the weight of the current President’s early morning tweets.
See this article on Medium a few months back. It offers an interesting angle on what's been happening in America.
That is why Senator John McCain’s death not long ago – and his legacy of bipartisanship, as evidenced in his final statements and memorials – proves so striking. Where are those leaders who seek to bring people together, to find common ground?
Sadly, leaders who represent this are growing increasingly scarce. So we, the people, must consider ourselves, “What am I doing to make the situation better?”
That really should be our goal.
Finding common ground – loving the stranger, the “other,” the one who on the surface may seem so different from you but, deep down, is a real person with a history, with feelings, with trials, who really desires to love and be loved – this is what we must increasingly learn how to do. Why? Because our times demand it!
How Do I Do This?
I’m not asking you to go out and become an activist. Although if you are so driven, go right ahead.
I’m simply asking you to consider how you interact with others in your daily life – especially those who seem different.
Not just different racially, culturally or linguistically. Although that matters a lot.
But also educationally, politically, religiously and socioeconomically.
Can you do something every single day this month to try to bridge the gaps? To sow peace, not discord? To usher in understanding? To be light, not darkness?
These are choices.
And that is why they’re so hard.
What Can I Do to Make a Change?
Here are three simple and immediate steps you can take:
1 | Volunteer. Yes, I know you’re busy. So am I. But dedicate a couple hours a week helping people who need it. In any community there are countless opportunities to do this. Homeless shelters. Meals on Wheels. Libraries offering adult literacy programs. Animal rescue centers. Safe houses for women and children. Churches. Schools (when appropriate). The list goes on.
2 | Volunteer outside of your comfort zone. Yes, I just suggested volunteering. And you might gravitate to something you probably feel comfortable doing. I know I do. But this time, try stretching more. And give yourself six months to see how it works. Be open minded and look for the lessons. They will be there.
3 | Watch and listen to news from a variety of perspectives, not just the ones you agree with. This is so important! If you don’t agree with CNN, MSNBC, NPR and BBC, make sure you give them some airtime. Same goes with Fox News and The Drudge Report. Or, if you prefer to keep in the center lane, why not try hanging out with The Economist – a publication consistently noted for its balanced reporting and editorials.
Let me make a key point here. Deliberately ignoring the news and what’s going on in the U.S. and around the world is like being an ostrich. You are burying your head in the sand, and you will be helpful to no one.
Of course, I recognize everyone needs to determine just how much they can handle. Truth is, sometimes our personal lives are so overloaded, messed up or about to explode we cannot handle what’s going on “out there.” Yes, there are legitimate times for personal “news fasts,” no question.
Sometimes we may even need it as a reset. I know that’s been the case for me a handful of times over the last few years. But defaulting to the attitude of “it’s just too much” and failing to keep up with what’s going on in the country you call home is an abdication of responsibility.
Shortly before the 2016 election I was on a webinar by Michael Hyatt. He presented a visual way of looking at our lives in a way making sense to me. I’ve diagrammed it here, but essentially he had laid out the Serenity Prayer in a visual way I could understand. It’s been immensely helpful for me when I’ve found myself getting too pulled into the morass of politics.
In contrast, allowing yourself to be overwhelmed (and your intellect and time to be hijacked) and rendered dysfunctional by the news is also harmful. I have a number of people in my life who identify with liberal values and so many of them are
Finding that balanced place is critical to going forward.
Not just for you, but for the U.S. And for our world as well.
And maybe, just maybe, you may discover – You, too, can be a ‘stranger lover” because you will realize you have more in common with that stranger than you thought you had.
How often to YOU find yourself reaching out to the stranger?
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